Filed in Zen (Chan)

Roused from a Dream

Restoring Zen's female lineageMary Fowles

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Rowan Percy keeps her Zen women ancestor document on her altar, wrapped in a scarf her mother used to wear. She unfolds the delicate sheet of rice paper. The names are splayed in a circle, counterclockwise, and expand like rays around the enso. Prajnaparamita, the mother of all buddhas, and Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, are scrolled in red in the center. The names begin here, in the mythical realm. Then the circle travels forward through 2,600 years of Buddhist history. The Zen tradition didn’t form until 6th-century China, but this document includes pre-Zen women ancestors important to the tradition’s heritage. As the centuries unfold, we enter the lives of women who practiced, taught, and awakened in India, China, Japan, and last, North America.

Percy received this document at her jukai—the ceremony in which one formally becomes a Zen Buddhist. It took place in 2007 at the Salt Spring Zen Circle, her small rural sangha that is tucked away on Salt Spring Island, one of the idyllic Gulf Islands that dot the southwestern coast of Canada. This document honors the women in Zen Buddhist history and lore. It is considered to be the first of its kind, though no one knows for sure. Others may have been lost or destroyed in one of the upheavals that affected the documentation of women’s history.

The transmission of Zen has, until now, been documented through a male lineage chart. Names on that traditional lineage include pre-Zen history too, forming a chain of ancestors that links the present-day teacher to the Buddha, stretching back about 90 generations. But now, instead of one, there are two charts: the traditional male lineage and the newly created women ancestor document. This document redresses history, honoring women’s names for the first time, and the documents are handed out together now in most jukai ceremonies in Soto Zen temples across the West.

The women ancestor document formed out of an urgent plea for change and a sense of injustice at the absence of women figures in Soto Zen history as it was being taught in the West. Its creation is an example of how history is adjusted for greater accuracy in light of a value system that honors women’s contributions. This document embodies a new story for Zen, a story that includes women. It also embodies a story of how history changes.

Since the first days of Buddhism, women have struggled to be included as full members of the religious community.  The most famous example is the story of Mahapajapati, whose name appears in the eighth place on the document. She was the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother, who had raised him from just seven days old after his mother, Maya, had died. In the early days after the Buddha’s awakening, before there was a women’s monastic order, Mahapajapati made a radical choice. She dressed in a saffron robe, cut off her hair, and asked the Buddha to let women enter his order. He refused. Determined, she followed him barefoot to the city of Vesali, leading, it is said, 500 women. These women, writes Susan Murcott in The First Buddhist Women, wanted to “leave home,” just as male monastics did. Many hoped to “resolve ultimate questions of birth, suffering, and death,” and they wanted the Buddha as their teacher. The Buddha refused to admit women again, then a third time. Finally, the Buddha’s attendant Ananda stepped in. After Ananda pressed him, the Buddha finally conceded that women have full spiritual capacity. Even so, writes Murcott, for women to renounce home life was almost unthinkable; it called into question the deepest notions of gender roles and thus threatened to overturn society. Such a situation, the Buddha said, would hasten the decline of his teachings by 500 years. Nevertheless, acknowledging Ananda’s reasoning, he relented. From that day, women became full inheritors of his teachings, with an irreversible right to practice within the tradition.

But all of Zen’s women ancestors’ lives unfolded inside a chiefly male historical narrative, and Mahapajapati’s life was no exception. No matter how important a woman’s contribution to Buddhism was, her name would not make it into the traditional lineage chart. In this patriline, as in any patriline, there is no place for women. Quickly, women’s names and stories fade into the background or disappear completely, sometimes within the span of a single generation...

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